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Monday, September 11, 2006

A Romanian Interview with Bret Easton Ellis

An interview for Prezent Magazine announcing the release of "Lunar Park" in Romanian (July 2006)

1. At the beginning of your career critics referred to you, and your New York contemporaries, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz as "brat-pack" authors. How did you regard this label then and now?

1. The Brat Pack was something that the media created. It was an easy and lazy way to group a bunch of young authors together who were writing about urban lifestyles and not have to deal with each one of us individually. We were all very different stylists and had extremely different temperaments: Jay McInerney was a romantic influenced by Fitzgerald, Tama Janowitz was a conceptual comedian influenced by Warhol, I was influenced by minimalism and punk, etc. But we were all writing about young people in cosmopolitan centers going to clubs and casually doing drugs, and we were creating books that were much more influenced by rock and movies than, say, a previous generation of writers—so we had that in common, but not much else. In terms of sensibility Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City are polar opposites of each other. The similarity (a young man’s life in NY/LA) is all on the surface and ends there. But the media thought there was a movement when in-fact no such movement existed. And the practitioners of this supposed movement even said “There is no movement” but the media thought it was a good story—“young authors create new genre”—and basically this helped sell a lot of books that might have gone unnoticed as most first novels do.

2. There is some controversy in regarding your novels as postmodern narratives. Other critics have pointed out that you are "stepping away from post modernity toward contemporary hybrid fiction" (Daniel Grassian "Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X"). How do you see your writing in light of this comment?

2. I don’t think about my writing the way a critic would so it’s hard for me to answer those types of questions. That’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m creating a novel. Creating a novel for me is an emotional response toward something I’ve witnessed or experienced—regardless of its content it’s not an intellectual exercise. Am I post-modernist? I have no idea. That’s not for me to decide. I don’t necessarily believe in the truthfulness of the text—and I like to play around with illusion and reality. That might make me a bit of a post-modernist, I suppose. But I feel like a traditionalist in many ways. And I think the books I’ve written are grounded in the tradition of the social novel: stories that investigate the milieu of contemporary society and place it in some kind of fictional context. When I was younger and much angrier I responded to the world with books that were satires. And I think this is true of everything up to Lunar Park which veers away from that to a degree and becomes a novel by an older and less angry man. I don’t see the world in that way anymore and I can’t imagine creating another novel that is attempting to unmask the lies and banality of society. I’ve done it. It’s over. There’s nothing left to say about that. The “political” has become the “personal” for me and that’s what I’m now interested in writing about. Lunar Park may have satirical elements about suburban life, the modern family and celebrity, but it’s primarily an investigation of where I am now and how did I get there?

3. Some considered your character Patrick Bateman "a messenger of an inhumanly commercialized and increasingly materialistic society"; In some ways critics have appointed you spokesperson for the X Generation. Do you view yourself as a social commentator or do you feel that these terms reduce your artistic vision?

3. I don’t care what people label me. If they label me social commentator—I wouldn’t disagree. If they label me spokesperson for Generation X—again, I wouldn’t disagree. On one level I am these things and to care enough to deny it would be a waste of time and wouldn’t accurately reflect how I feel about myself as a writer. Does being labeled anything “reduce” a writer’s artistic vision? No, not necessarily—because the labeling comes after the fact. The fact being: the writing of the novel. Or maybe labeling does create limitations and I don’t care enough to correct them. But I honestly don’t know who I am as a writer. It’s not something that I lay in bed at night thinking about. I’m more likely to be thinking about sex or what I’m going to be doing the next day.

4. Elizabeth Young (Shopping in Space: Essays on America's Blank Generation Fiction") likened you to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald once said of his age:
“An age of miracles...an age of excess... and an age of satire ... This was the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than lack of taste (...) and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were"? Could you comment on this statement in regard to your own era?

4. Well, certainly technology is a miracle of sorts, and America is a vast country that defines the word “excess” and we live in a very ironic culture that simultaneously satirizes itself even as it’s commenting on satirizing itself. We also corrupted our elders by emphasizing youth and beauty as more meaningful than anything else—and I think that represents a lack of morality and taste (though, God, I hate that term: “taste”—it’s so fucking elitist). The generation before mine did not step aside, however: they greedily participated in everything wrong that my generation thought was valuable. There was no one to keep the storm from destroying everything. Youth culture now dominates the world and has corrupted everyone. This is a dangerous thing because without the guidance and experience of our elders then we’re lost. I know that sounds rather conventional but I believe it.

5. Unusually you do not write journalistically or critically, at least not for publication. Could you expand upon your reasons for confining your literary expression to fiction and interview?

5. It’s simple: I’m not a good journalist. And since I don’t like most books I’m reluctant to write about them negatively in influential journals. For whatever reasons the novel is the form I feel most comfortable expressing myself in. I also write screenplays and I enjoy that, too, but it is impersonal work and something I do simply because I like movies.

6. This month sees the Romanian publication of ‘Lunar Park’, your much anticipated latest novel. Although the subject matter of your fiction focuses mainly on contemporary American society, your books are worldwide best-sellers. How do you explain the universal appeal of your writing?

6. I have no clue as to why my books are read in so many different places. An easy hypothesis might be that they’re critical of American values and set in exotic milieus (Beverly Hills, expensive colleges, Wall Street, the fashion world, the upscale suburbs) and they’re populated by young and beautiful people and this combination appeals to those readers interested in the more fatuous elements of American life. But I think the books are more universal than that. Less Than Zero is being read by people who weren’t born when it was published and even in a book without cell phones and computers and reality-television young people relate to the novel. And I think they’re relating to the alienation of the narrator; that there is something very universal about his sadness and loneliness that no matter whether you’re in Oklahoma or Cologne or Madrid or Ireland or Romania you can identify with. Since I wrote it as a teenager there’s a purity to the book even as flawed as I sometimes find it—but the flaws are part of what makes the book work. If I wrote that book now—as a 42 year old man with a plan—it would come off as a better written book perhaps but a less truthful one since I was writing from my own emotional experience at 18/19 and that voice is undiluted. This has been the case however with every book I’ve written. American Psycho isn’t about a serial killer: it’s about what happens to a young man when he enters society and realizes what is expected of him and that in order to move ahead and to get the things he wants and to gain some semblance of control he will have to conform and therefore destroy himself and his identity—this creates anger and alienation and a dark and demented fantasy life. That’s not an American thesis—that’s true of the Western world. The vacuous unfulfilled romances at the heart of The Rules of Attraction (the novel I receive the most passionate letters about) connect with anyone who has ever loved someone who hasn’t loved them back. That’s a pretty simple and universal story. Glamorama is a cautionary tale on what happens when we believe in surfaces and find truth in them. Again, that’s not only an American tale.

7. Have you ever been surprised by the reaction elicited by any of your novels abroad? Could you share with us one such example?

7. Not really surprised. I guess the fact that the books are read abroad is surprising in itself. The fact that I won a literary prize in France for Lunar Park surprised me—I have never been considered for a literary prize anywhere. The fact that Japan is indifferent to the books surprises me a little, I guess.

8. It seems that you have always enjoyed socializing with the elite New York set; you have often been photographed with famous actors, artists and writers. Do you feel there has been any change over the years in this glamorous society, say since you wrote American Psycho, a satire on the excesses of Wall St. in the eighties?

8. I think that has been a myth about me in a way. I might have lived in New York and Los Angeles—and true, some of my friends have glamorous professions, I suppose—but the majority of people I hang out with are other writers and friends from high school and college—some of these people are doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, housewives—even a veterinarian. The elite? No, never. I’m not interested in hanging with supermodels or Upper East Side society or powerful people in Hollywood. I identify with writers and tend to spend most of my time with them and in America these people are not considered the elite. The changes in glamorous society? From my vantage point as an outsider—there hasn’t been any changes. That world is permanent and the people who live in it go to great lengths to make sure it stays small and private and hermetic. Outsiders are rarely let in.

9. For American Psycho you documented Wall Street, for Glamorama you turned your attention to the world of fashion. Each book shows little mercy on the subject of its gaze. I imagine with the level of exposure your books receive it is virtually impossible for you be unobtrusive in your movements. Has it become more difficult for you to research books?

9. I don’t do a lot of research. I start off with an idea that intrigues me and then—sigh—reality doesn’t correspond with what I want to do in my fictional world and since I’m writing novels and not non-fiction my motto automatically becomes, “Well, make it up!” And considering what my subjects are (Wall Street, the modeling industry, the upscale suburbs) being a “well-known” writer worked to my advantage. It opened a lot more doors than if I was someone no one had ever heard of. Plus I make it clear I just want a feel for the lifestyle when I’m hanging out and I’m not taking quotes for a magazine article so people feel protected and are more prone to show me things. But the only times I needed to do research was really for Glamorama—terrorism and the world of fashion. The story had already been laid out and I needed to fill in some blanks. I thought I was doing research on American Psycho by hanging out with Wall Street guys for a couple of weeks but that research helped inform the book in a totally unexpected way. Instead of writing about their jobs—which had been the plan—I wrote about their materialistic lifestyle and how it overwhelms everything.

10. Fiction such as your own, or indeed Chuck Palahniuk's, has been said to typify the American state of mind pre 9’11. What kind of effect do you think the events of this day had on you and your contemporaries, a day when it is said that truth was stranger and more terrifying then fiction?

10. I haven’t begun a new book since 9/11 so I can’t say yet whether it has affected my work or not—the novel I am planning takes place in LA and since it has been thought out I can say with some certainty that 9/11 does not play a role. I was in the middle of Lunar Park when it happened and it provided a better excuse as to why the actress moves to the suburbs than the one I originally had. How has it affected my daily life? Obviously: more anxious, depressed, a wake-up call, I suppose. It has certainly made me question what it means to be an American in a way I never expected. I lived thirty blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes hit. It was a terrifying morning. I was very lucky I did not lose any of the friends that worked there. Other than that I have nothing more to say.

11 Although the real Bret Easton Ellis and his characters are very different, your characters always seem to borrow something from you.
How do distinguish between yourself and your characters or do you think there is free movement between fiction and reality? Do you enjoy the controversy that these ambiguities create?

11. I don’t enjoy controversy. I like ambiguity though. Look, whenever I’ve written about someone—a stoned passive teenager, a lovestruck college girl, a psychopath, a vacuous male model, a vampire, a rock-star, a Bel-Air housewife, a father, etc—I’m writing in some ways about myself. You can’t avoid that if you’re writing fiction that’s true and that means anything. Everything I’ve written has been autobiographical to some degree—even when I’m at my most outrageous there is a core of who I am being revealed. You can’t hide behind fiction. It always reveals who the writer really is. Yes, I am Patrick Bateman. Yes, I am Victor Ward. Yes, I am Clay. Yes, I am the Bret Easton Ellis of Lunar Park. But again these are also fictional characters. For example, I do not resemble Victor Ward in any way yet I related to him and there was a part of him I identified with and yet also found tragic. He was the embodiment of my darker fantasies as are most of my characters. I wish I looked a bit more like him though.

12. As an American writer who travels extensively, how do you regard the differences between American and European book culture? Can you elaborate on some of the cultural differences you have observed in terms of society and values in reference to these two continents?

12. The differences are hard to discern when you’re a writer in the middle of a book tour because you’re in the center of a machine that needs to console you constantly—that tells you what you are doing matters and that it means something, when in-fact the book tour is designed by the publishers to sell as many books as possible at as many appearances as possible. The writer becomes a salesman and it’s hard to overlook that fact and to connect with your readership—it’s a very distracting thing. On the Lunar Park world tour every venue was packed (from Miami to Glasgow to Milan to Helsinki) so I came away from the tour with the idea that the book had done extraordinarily well, when, in-fact it sold okay. The main difference between American book culture and European book culture is that Americans are obsessed with the idea of the celebrity writer and of the many people who turned out for the public events in the U.S. there was a curiosity factor involved—Lunar Park received an enormous amount of press coverage in the United States and much of it revolved around my biography and a few tragic recent events that had happened to me in the last couple of years. Some people bought the book but many others were there to see a famous person. In Europe people come who are genuinely interested in the author and his work and don’t really care about his personal life (his drug problems, who he’s sleeping with, how many copies his books sell, does he really know Keanu Reeves?). I’m amazed that in Germany people pay to hear an author read from his work and then ask lengthy questions about the book he’s reading from. In the United States the idea of paying to see an author read (the readings are all free) is almost as outrageous as something from one of my books.

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